Chuck Jones brought up an interesting point yesterday when discussing his campaign, in between the levying of corruption charges and whatnot. Sez Chuckles:
“In this election, I am going to call for the largest student vote turnout in the history of Athens.”
Chuck’s statement kind of implies that he’s going to embark on a quest to register a massive number of UGA students and get them to vote for him. Well, good luck, pal. The streets of Athens are littered with the shells of campaigns that tried to tap into the “student vote” as a path to victory. To be perfectly fair, Chuck isn’t the first person to think of this – so please don’t think we’re picking on just him. Andy Rusk has brought it up, and Chuck and Andy are just the examples from this cycle. Every time we have an election, at least one candidate decides that the path to victory runs through Creswell Hall. Here’s why it doesn’t.
It’s seductive, it really is. You’ve got 30,000-plus students out there, many of whom have definite views, and most of whom would be attracted to a young, dynamic candidate, like a Blake Tillery or an Andy Rusk. For the more idealistically-minded, there’s also no question, given their presence here for at least nine months out of the year (not to mention their contributions to the local economy), that the students deserve a representative voice.
And registering them is super-easy. Go set up a table in any crowded area of campus, and you’ll get plenty of folks who are willing to register to vote or change their registration to Athens.
But what do you do with them once they’re registered? Ay, there’s the rub. Registration isn’t the hard part – activating your newly-registered voters is the hard part. Now that requires a field effort the likes of which has never been seen in Athens before.
We were told there would be no math, but let’s play with some numbers real fast. Best case scenario, let’s assume that a candidate registers 20,000 students to vote. Now, in order for your 20,000 new registrations to be able to vote, you’ve got to have them all in to the Board of Elections by October 10. The election is on November 7, giving these students almost a month to forget that they changed their voter registration. In fact, quite a few of them probably registered because it seemed like a good idea at the time, but forgot about it by the end of the day. By the way, unless you’re counting on registering those 20,000 new voters all in one day, then the time to forget about registering is even longer; state law says that the applications have to be in no more than 15 days after they’re filled out.
Anyway, you’ve got 20,000 new voters. You’ve got their names, addresses, maybe even their phone numbers and email addresses. How are you going to get them out to vote on November 7? More importantly, how are you going to get them out to vote for you on November 7? Remember, they’re swimming in the community pool now, and they’re fair game for any candidate with the wherewithal to get his or her hands on an updated voter file.
Well, the first step is persuasion. Again, just because you registered them doesn’t mean that they’re going to vote for you. So how do you reach them? Well, there’s direct mail. Assuming an average cost per piece of mail of $0.75 (and we are so lowballing you here – the good stuff costs upwards of a buck per piece), then you’ve just added another $15,000 to your campaign budget. But wait, one piece of direct mail isn’t going to do the trick. You’re going to need multiple hits – at least three or four pieces. (Preferably targeted pieces based on demographic info, but we’re sure that you already thought of that, right candidates?) So now that $15,000 has become $45,000 or $60,000 and that’s just persuasion, we haven’t even addressed GOTV yet.
Ok, so maybe direct mail isn’t our best tactic. TV and radio, anyone? Well, locally, that is going to cost you less than the mail for sure, but you’re also getting a lower ROI, because you can’t hold a TV ad in your hand and look at it carefully. (Some people actually do read direct mail.) In any event, expect to spend at least another $15,000 - $25,000 on TV and radio ads for them to do any good whatsoever.
Well, persuasion is expensive, but at least you can buy good persuasion. Good GOTV work is more a matter of sweat equity. You’re going to need volunteers, and lots of them, to dragoon those 20,000 college students into going to vote. Vans to get them there (because not everybody on campus has a car), are also a must. Even if all 20,000 of your new voters have brand-new SUVs, you still want to transport them yourself, because GOTV – really, really good GOTV – is a controlled process. You’ve got to move people in the most efficient manner possible, while knowing the status of every targeted voter, and making sure no one falls through the cracks? Sound complicated? That’s why the really good field consultants get the big bucks.
Of course there are more passive means of GOTV than a balls-to-the-wall grassroots effort. You can send emails reminding people to vote. You can send out a slew of robo-dial calls. But don’t ask me what your return on investment is going to be. These are before-the fact reminders, nothing more, and thus far less effective than a real election-day GOTV campaign. By the way, organizing something like this is, as Chuck says, difficult but not impossible, and there are ways to make the student GOTV somewhat less of a shitshow than it has the potential to be. Of course, if you want to shell out the big bucks for someone with the knowledge to do it, be our guest. We’ll even make some recommendations, if you ask nicely enough.
The worst problem any candidate is going to have to deal with in getting student turnout up is the dynamic itself. There’s a vicious cycle as far as UGA students and Athens politics (the concept, not the blog) are concerned. Students don’t vote because they feel like a separate entity from the local government. They feel like a separate entity because they often get screwed by the local government. They get screwed because they don’t vote. And the cycle continues. Can anyone break that cycle?
Probably not. And there’s another dynamic at work here too. Many students, as shocking as this might seem, do not consider Athens “home,” and that’s where you vote – home.
Bottom line on this one. The students who actually give a rat’s ass about voting in ACC are already, for the most part, registered. The rest don’t consider this to be their home – they may live in Athens, but they’re from Dublin, or Columbus, or Millen.
So is registering students and convincing them to take a more active role in their local government a bad thing? Not at all. Like we said way back at the top of this post, they live here most of the year, contribute gobs of money to the local economy, and are seriously underrepresented in local government. But for a campaign to put all of their eggs in the “we’re going to win on the student vote” basket is just silly. There’s a reason why it hasn’t worked in the past. Resources (time, energy, and most importantly, money) are too scarce and too valuable on a campaign to do the kind of work that a successful effort like this would require. And remember, while our hypothetical candidate is focusing on the 30,000-plus UGA students, his or her opponents may well be putting their energy where it belongs – on the 40,000-plus people who are already registered to vote.
Sure, the students need to get organized and start taking a role in local government, but the time to organize the students is in the off-years, not during campaign season, and the people to do it are the students themselves, not the folks who want their votes.